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Health beat: U asks why race matters in cancer

  • Article by: Maura Lerner
  • Star Tribune
  • February 9, 2012 - 7:32 PM

Jean Forster practically knows the numbers by heart.

When it comes to surviving cancer, race matters.

For black women, the death rate is 16 percent higher than for white women.

For black men, the death rate is 32 percent higher than for white men.

Forster, a professor of public health at the University of Minnesota, says the reasons are complicated. Now, she's won a $2.2 million federal grant to try to do something about it.

The grant, from the National Cancer Institute, will allow the U to recruit three doctoral students and three post-graduates to study new ways to combat these health disparities, which tend to fall most heavily on ethnic minorities.

"This gives them a chance to focus their work on this area," she says, and "set the direction of their careers."

Studies have shown, for example, that blacks have higher rates of stomach, colon, prostate and lung cancer than whites. In part, that's because of differences in access to early detection and treatment, she says, but "that is not the whole story." Everything from dietary to cultural practices (such as tobacco use among Indians) may play a role. The challenge is often how to address problems such as obesity, smoking and nutrition in ways that resonate with each ethnic group.

Forster says she plans to give preference to scientists from disadvantaged groups who are interested in "going back to their community."

In the past, she said, critics have derided some scientists in her field as "helicopter researchers," because of the tendency to drop in to collect data and then disappear. That approach often leaves the communities no better off than they started, she said.

In this case, the young scientists will get special training to work closely with members of the group they're studying. "For one thing, it could make the solutions more relevant," she said. "So that actually some of these may get addressed."

maura.lerner@startribune.com

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